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Bruins 6, Sabres 2

Craig Smith’s hat trick helps Bruins blow out league-worst Sabres

Craig Smith (left) gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead in the first period.
Craig Smith (left) gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead in the first period.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After watching the Bruins essentially take target practice for nearly 20 minutes on Saturday afternoon, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin tried his best to simply get the puck out of the Buffalo zone with the last seconds of the first period ticking down. But Brad Marchand wouldn’t let him.

Dahlin tried flicking the puck in the air to clear it, but Marchand caught it, dropped it, and tried to send it toward David Pastrnak, who was hanging out in front of the net.

The Bruins had already ripped off 17 shots in the period. Why not one more?

Dahlin, tired of the Bruins teeing off, broke up the pass and shipped it to the other side to let the clock finally drain on a long period.

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The Sabres skated off down, 2-1, looking like a team ready for the season to end. The Bruins, on the other hand, looked like a team sharpening their knives for what’s ahead.

In a 6-2 win that was nearly identical to the beating they handed the Sabres on Thursday, the Bruins made their final game this season against Buffalo look like a walkthrough. They picked up their ninth win in the last 11 games. They finished the season 7-1 against the Sabres. They came out of the win with a sense that after a complicated season, their pieces are coming together when they’re supposed to.

“It’s really just about getting into the playoffs and peaking,” said Sean Kuraly, who scored his first goal since February, punching in a rebound in front of the net to put the Bruins up, 2-1. “You want to peak at the right time. That’s the name of the game, and I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve still got some work to do and we know that, but we feel good about where we’re at.”

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The momentum the Bruins have feels familiar to last year, when they won five of six games just before the league was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A five-month hiatus made it impossible to pick up where they left off. While the condensed circumstances of this season create a different set of challenges, the Bruins know the momentum they’re building can be carried into the postseason this time.

“This year, I think we’re trying to build our game, and we know what our ultimate goal is here,” Kuraly said. “The last four years we’ve seen different things happen. We went all the way to the end, we won a Presidents’ Trophy, and you realize that there’s not one way to do this thing. But you’re just trying to play your best hockey at the right time. And I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve got some work to do, but I think we’ve got a locker room that’s just starting to get pretty excited.”

Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin and Brad Marchand were ready to go during the third period Saturday, but linesman Ryan Daisy of Mansfield wasn't so eager.
Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin and Brad Marchand were ready to go during the third period Saturday, but linesman Ryan Daisy of Mansfield wasn't so eager.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For much of the season, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy had been searching for scoring beyond the top line of Patrice Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak.

Fueled by Craig Smith’s second career hat trick, the second line gave the Bruins what Cassidy was looking for on Saturday.

Smith got the Bruins on the board with a goal in the first period, then poured it on with two more in the third to push his season total to 13. Second-line center David Krejci assisted on all three of Smith’s scores. Bergeron and Nick Ritchie also got in on the goal-scoring action.

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“I thought there were some good looks,” Smith said. “But as a team, I thought we built some pretty good energy down there. A lot of stuff we worked on in practice the other day, it was translating and we were playing our game.

“So I think a lot of lines did a lot of great things and ended up being just a product of some nice plays. But all in all, it’s a great game.”

Throughout his career, Smith has used the halfway point as a barometer. The Bruins were 16-8-4 at the midway point, navigating injuries and COVID-related issues. But since the April 12 trade deadline, the Bruins have gone 9-2. Smith credited the late-season push to everyone in the locker room evaluating themselves.

“I think the halfway mark is kind of a report card,” he said. “I thought everybody made a good switch. If you didn’t like where you were and didn’t like how you were playing, I think there were some changes that you can make.

“I think we’ve done that, and we’re continuing to build. We’re still a work in progress. We’re still, as a team‚ we’re working to recalibrate every night and try to be a little bit better.”

After months spent trying to establish depth, continuity, and consistency, the Bruins are finding all those things when it matters most.

“I think this is the time of year, we’re looking internally and everyone’s building to play for the crest,” Smith said. “It might be the smallest detail that could win a game, and this time of the year those are going to be the biggest things to make the push.”

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Boston's top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak combined for just one goal on Saturday, by Bergeron to make it 3-1 early in the second period.
Boston's top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak combined for just one goal on Saturday, by Bergeron to make it 3-1 early in the second period.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.